MIT Strategic Engineering

Research Overview

Strategic Engineering is the process of architecting and designing complex systems and products in a way that deliberately accounts for future uncertainty and context in order to maximize lifecycle value.

The initial inspiration for this vision of constantly changing and evolving man-made systems came from work that Prof. de Weck did as an aerospace engineer and program manager on the Swiss F/A-18 program in the 1990s. Despite having been designed originally for a reference U.S. Navy mission profile, the aircraft was significantly modified for operations over 30+ years in the Swiss alpine environment. Other countries such as Canada, Australia, Spain, Malaysia and Finland also modified the system for their own needs, using the standard configuration as a starting point.

However, changing a complex system like a military aircraft after its initial design, leads to a complex set of interactions between various subsystems and disciplines such as structures, propulsion, mass properties, software, avionics, manufacturing and so forth. Changes that look simple at first can propagate to cause other - sometimes surprisingly complex- changes, not just in the physical system but also in the organization of projects, the contractual arrangements, and the long term strategic value of the asset.

This animation shows the phenomenon of change propagation for a complex aerospace design project. Yellow squares show proposed changes, Green squares show implemented changes and Red squares show rejected changes occuring over a period of several years. Changes are linked through parent-child and sibling relationships.

See the following paper for more details [the animation shown here is for the 87CR network, credit: Mike Pasqual]:

Giffin M., de Weck O., Bounova G., Keller R., Eckert C., Clarkson P.J., "Change Propagation Analysis in Complex Technical Systems," Journal of Mechanical Design, 131 (8), 081010, August 2009 [PDF]

Not just biological systems evolve, man-made ones do too.

The common theme in our research is to design and optimize systems not just for their initial use, but for the long term. Doing so deliberately is what we call Strategic Engineering. The figure below shows our research framework. Individual research areas are shown as boxes and are clickable to obtain more detail.

A new system starts by first understanding its anticipated market, existing and newly emerging technologies that will enable or enhance the system and any existing or future policies and regulations that need to be considered. All these aspects represent various stakeholders that will influence the system.

The first step in Systems Engineering is to carefully consider the Architecture that the system should or could have. This results in an initial choice of concept that needs to be better understood in terms of its anticipated performance, cost and risk profile. This is where Integrated Modeling and Simulation can be very helpful. FInally, we want to "fine tune" the design of the system so that it optimally meets the various objectives and constraints that have been laid out. Ideally, Multidisciplinary Design Optimization will yield an "optimal" design x* at the end of this process.

Looking at the left side of the above graphic, we often find out later, that the true requirements for the system are different than what we originally thought. So x* is no longer optimal at some later time because there was uncertainty in the original requirements. This leads to changes that have to be made to the system. If the changes are done purely as an afterthought (also referred to as "retrofits") it can be very expensive and slow. The temporal dimension of strategic engineering seeks to design desirable Lifecycle Properties of Engineering Systems (such as changeability, flexibility, evolvability ... ) into systems right from the start. This closes the loop back to systems architecture as some potential architectures may have very different lifecycle properties than others.

The right side of the framework contains the spatial dimension of the problem and comes into play when more than a single instance of the system needs to be built. Often more than one variant of the system or product is needed to meet different customer requirements in different markets, different mission profiles and so forth. Effectively creating such variety requires a careful mix of common parts and functions (Design for Commonality) and can also influence the initial choice of platform architecture.

Already existing systems that are being modified and evolved undergo a similar process, though it may be messier than shown here.

Both, Systems on planet Earth and Space Systems can be designed in this way.

Why do we call this approach "Strategic Engineering"?

We call this approach "Strategic Engineering" because - like a general in battle- one should consider not just the immediate objective in front of oneself (e.g. the product or subsystem to be designed or the city to be conquered) but the broader spatial and temporal aspects of the problem. Read an account of the Battle of Morat (1476) to get a sense of what we are talking about. (Note: Morat is about 17 kilometers from Prof. de Weck's hometown of Fribourg in Switzerland and was a crucial battle in the early years of the Swiss Confederation).

Like a general deploying various assets and troops along a spatial area and thinking about the uncertain evolution of an imminent battle and possible anticipatory or reactive moves, engineers and managers should think more strageically about their work. The goal of our research is to make the engineering of complex systems more strategic.

Research areas: